Supreme Court Hears FDCPA Case


The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Sheriff, et al. v. Gillie, et. al., No. 15-338, 2015 WL 5476344, --- S.Ct.--- (U.S. Dec. 11, 2015) Tuesday. The case deals with exemptions to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and false, deceptive or misleading representation.

Specifically, the Supreme Court will decide whether special counsel appointed by the Ohio Attorney General to collect state-owed debts on his office’s behalf are state “officers” within the meaning of the FDCPA and whether it’s misleading for these lawyers to use Attorney General letterhead when contacting consumers about their debts.

“The strongest defense that the collector can impose is to argue that the FDCPA is wholly inapplicable because the ’special counsel’ are ’officers’ of the state, which would put them within an exemption from the FDCPA,” according to SCOTUSBlog.

This case began when consumers Pamela Gillie and Hazel Meadows filed a lawsuit against several law firms acting as special counsel for the Ohio Attorney General to collect medical debt owed to the state, ACA previously reported. They argued that the use of the Attorney General’s letterhead to send demand letters to collect consumer debt was intentionally misleading and, therefore, a violation of the FDCPA. 

After a lower district court ruled in favor of the law firms, the consumers appealed the decision to the Sixth Circuit Court, which vacated the district court’s decision for the law firms.  The Sixth Circuit Court determined that private attorneys designated by the Ohio Attorney General as special counsel for debt collection purposes are not officers of the state, meaning they are not exempt from the FDCPA.  As a result, the attorneys’ use of the Attorney General’s official letterhead on collection letters could be a misrepresentation that violates the FDCPA.

Due to the recent death of Justice Antonin Scalia, if the Supreme Court is deadlocked 4-4 in Sheriff, the Sixth Circuit’s decision in the case is upheld but it does not create a legal precedent.